Friday’s semifinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships could not offer a more startling -- and, upon further review, a more tantalizing -- contrast.

It’s World No.1 Iga Swiatek and three players looking for their first final on that exalted stage.

Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, ranked No.80 when the season began, has beaten two Top 10 players in two days and three so far this year -- equaling her career total.

The bottom features two nearly as unlikely combatants, No.22 Sorana Cirstea and No.26 Jasmine Paolini, with enormous career implications in play. Paolini advanced when Elena Rybakina withdrew with an illness. Cirstea saved six match points in a still-hard-to-process comeback against Marketa Vondrousova. One of them will find herself with a chance to win more than a half-million dollars, 1,000 rankings points and a spot among the Top 20 for the first time.

With Vondrousova was serving for the match a 5-1 in the second set, Cirstea glanced at the match clock and saw that it has just crossed one hour. OK, she said to herself, let’s win one more game for the public.

“I think that thing took the pressure away from me,” she told reporters later. “I started to find my game.”

Cirstea won 12 of the last 15 games to defeat the current Wimbledon champion.

“There was a moment in time where I kind of gave up with the idea of winning,” she said. “There is a saying: You have to fight until the last point. Today you could see why.”

With that in mind, here’s how these two semifinals break down:

No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. Anna Kalinskaya

The case for Swiatek 

The first two questions of Swiatek’s postmatch press conference were about Coco Gauff, her expected opponent in the semifinals. Gauff was playing Kalinskaya at the time, but few expected her to win against the reigning US Open champion.

Eventually, in more of a hypothetical sense, Kalinskaya’s name came up.

“Against Kalinskaya, for sure we’re going to prepare tactically,” Swiatek said. “I don’t know if we played ...”

For the record, they haven’t in singles, which might be why Swiatek wasn’t sure.

In Thursday’s quarterfinals, Swiatek dropped a tidy 6-3, 6-2 loss on Zheng Qinwen, setting off some statistical fireworks from the folks at Opta Stats.

This is Swiatek’s 26th WTA 1000 -- and her 13th semifinal. Previously, only Victoria Azarenka managed to do that before turning 23. Since her WTA 1000 debut in 2019, Swiatek has four more such semifinals than next-best Aryna Sabalenka.

Swiatek is back to doing Swiatek things in the Middle East. She was a finalist in Dubai a year ago, falling to Barbora Krejcikova. Last week, Swiatek won her third straight title in Doha, mounting a comeback to defeat Rybakina in the final. Her journey there was simplified when Karolina Pliskova pulled out of their semifinal match, so Swiatek should feel relatively fresh.

The case for Kalinskaya

In the narrow confines of 2024, this isn’t a complete surprise.

The 25-year-old reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, pushing eventual finalist Zheng to three sets. In Dubai, including qualifying, Kalinskaya has won six consecutive matches. 

After beating two fellow qualifiers in the first two rounds, she sprung a 6-4, 7-5 upset on No.9 Jelena Ostapenko. After dropping the first set, she rallied to defeat Gauff 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. In the pivotal third set, Kalinskaya saved all four break points against her serve, while breaking Gauff twice.

Kalinskaya beats No.3 Gauff in Dubai quarterfinals to notch first Top 5 win

Kalinskaya is the first qualifier to come back against a Top 3 player at a WTA 1000 since Sachia Vickery did it against Garbiñe Muguruza six years ago in Indian Wells.

“I’m not surprised she’s No. 1, because I can see already mentally she’s super strong and physically she’s super fit,” Kalinskaya said of Swiatek. “I need to be ready for tomorrow and see what I can do.”

Sorana Cirstea vs. Jasmine Paolini

The case for Cirstea: She turns 34 in April and is playing the best tennis of her life. After beating Vondrousova, she called it the best comeback of her career. How can you go against that?

And while that required 2 hours and 41 minutes and Cirstea is coming off back-to-back three-set matches, her adrenaline will be flowing. She defeated the player (Donna Vekic) who took out the top seed in her quarter (Sabalenka) and eliminated the second top seed (Vondrousova). In both matches, she rallied to win after losing the first set. 

This is the Romanian’s third trip to the final four of a WTA 1000, going back to 2013 Toronto and 2023 Miami. The head-to-head belongs to Paolini, 2-0, but both matches went the distance.

“I lost to her in French Open [first round] last year,” Cirstea said of Paolini. “She’s very aggressive. She’s also very solid, very feisty. At this level you can see everyone plays great.

“To play semifinal in a 1000, it’s wonderful.”

The case for Paolini: The 28-year-old from Italy feels the same way. She was eating when her coach, Renzo Furlan, told her Rybakina was withdrawing.

“It’s something strange,” Paolini said. “I hope Elena recovers as fast as possible. It’s my first semifinal in a WTA 1000. It’s hard not to be happy.”

In her only previous WTA 1000 quarterfinal, Paolini lost to Gauff last year in Cincinnati. 

Coming in, she had lost three straight matches after reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open. But in Dubai Paolini has defeated two Top 20 players for the first time in a WTA tournament, No.11 Beatriz Haddad Maia and No.8 Maria Sakkari, as well as Leylah Fernandez. 

“I played great three matches here; we know they are all strong players,” Paolini said. “I think I have to be very solid with [Cirstea] and try to play deep. If she’s starting to move the ball, I’m going to run a lot. She can do also dropshot, volley, slice serve.

“I think the key, it’s going to be consistency but also to be aggressive.”